The themes of temple and kingship fit naturally together as the temple is the place from which the King reigns. We see this in Psalm 2, which works alongside of Psalm 1 as the introduction to the Psalter. As the introduction, Psalm 1 tells its audience that the key to covenant faithfulness is prayer, and Psalm 2 comes along to add yet another answer to that question. Psalm 2, which is a royal psalm celebrating the coronation of the messianic king, declares that faithfulness to God and his anointed king is yet a second aspect to covenant faithfulness. To be holy, one must be completely devoted to the one that God has anointed (Heb. māšîaḥ) King of the world. This is much like the call to exclusive monotheism that resounds throughout the Torah, the historical books, and the prophets.

This raises a rather obvious question for the exilic audience: “how can one be faithful to a messiah when there is no king!?” Psalm 2 is an affirmation to the exilic and post-exilic community that God will be faithful to fulfill his promise to make David’s heir the everlasting king of the cosmos.[1] Psalm 110 says,

The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord sends forth from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your enemies! Your people will offer themselves freely on the day of your power, in holy garments; from the womb of the morning, the dew of your youth will be yours. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter chiefs over the wide earth. He will drink from the brook by the way; therefore he will lift up his head.

Remember that in 2 Samuel 7 God promised David that the Messiah would come from David’s family. The Israelites, who are in exile under the reign of a pagan king and country, are naturally asking the question, “Will God be faithful to his promise to David?” Psalm 2 answers that question with a resounding “Yes!” In fact, this theme of God’s faithfulness to the Davidic covenant is at the center of the Psalter. Strategically placed throughout the book are royal psalms reminder Israel that God has not forgotten his promises and he will remain faithful because of his holy ḥesed.

Israel is not only called to be loyal to the Messiah, but also to God as King. God as King is arguably the central theme of the Psalter as it holds the Psalter’s themes of worship, temple and Lordship together.[2] This is what Psalms 93–99 are all about. Psalm 93 in particular is a wonderful example. It reads,

The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt. Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved. Your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting. The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring. Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, the Lord on high is mighty! Your decrees are very trustworthy; holiness befits your house, O Lord, forevermore.

These verses remind Israel that even though their circumstances indicate that God’s is no longer in control and that he has abandoned them, nothing could be further from the truth. God still reigns. He is not like other so-called “deities”. He is not restricted to geographical regions and he does not have to battle with other gods to maintain control of his people. If his people suffer it is because they have violated the covenant. And, even when they have abandoned the covenant, he hasn’t. He is utterly faithful no matter what. He is ḥeseḏ. He is holy.

ḥeseḏ

The ḥeseḏ of Yahweh is also central in the Psalter. We see this in the repeated refrain of Psalms 118 and 136 which is, “for his steadfast love endures forever” (Heb. kî leʿōlām ḥasdô). The phrase steadfast love is the ESV’S translation of the word ḥeseḏ. The placement of these psalms is crucial to their interpretation and to the theme of ḥeseḏ within the broader scope of the Psalter.

Psalms 113–136 are a collection of Psalms dedicated to the commemoration and celebration of Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery. Psalms 113–134 in particular are psalms dedicated to each of the three Jewish Pilgrimage Festivals as detailed in the Torah. Psalms 113–118, also known as the Egyptian Hallel, are sung to commemorate Passover;[3] Psalm 119 is sung to commemorate Pentecost;[4] Psalms 124–130, also known as the Songs of Ascent, are sung to commemorate the Feast of Tabernacles.[5] Psalms 135–136, then, are the capstone of these psalms that celebrate God’s saving activity in the life of Israel. Particularly noteworthy is that this collection is placed within book five of the Psalter as book five addresses the return from exile. The careful placement of these Pilgrimage Festival psalms in book five creates an intentional connection between Israel’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery and their deliverance from Babylonian exile. Further still, the placement of Psalms 118 and 136 as ḥeseḏ psalms is telling us that key to God’s saving activity among his people is his ḥeseḏ. In other words, even when Israel isn’t faithful, God is faithful, which sets him apart.

In sum, what we see is, once again, a direct link between the ḥeseḏ of God and the otherness (i.e., holiness) of God. God, unlike people and gods made in the image of people, is entirely and eternally faithful and powerful to save. Psalm 135, which celebrates the otherness of Yahweh among other nations and deities and precedes Psalm 136, which is the great ḥeseḏ Psalm, says,

For I know that the Lord is great, and that our Lord is above all gods. Whatever the Lord pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps. He it is who makes the clouds rise at the end of the earth, who makes lightnings for the rain and brings forth the wind from his storehouses. (vv. 5–7)

and vv. 15–18:

The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them.

We also find ḥeseḏ in Psalm 51. In the first verse David appeals to God’s ḥeseḏ as the basis for forgiveness. Verse 1 says, “Have mercy on me, o God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blog out my transgressions.” David is saying, “even though I have not been faithful, please be faithful to me according to your ḥeseḏ.” In his failure to be faithful to the stipulations of the covenant, David is appealing to God’s unwavering faithfulness as the basis of his forgiveness. Reflective of the controlling narrative of the Psalter, David also makes the connection between God’s ḥeseḏ and the restoration of the divine presence. Psalm 51:10–12 says,

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.

These verses summarize what holiness as the image of God restored in humanity is all about. Frist David asks for God to create new heart for him. The Hebrew word used here for “create” (Heb. bārāʾ) is the same verb used in Genesis 1:1 where God “created the heavens and the earth.” God is only ever the subject of this verb. Only God is able to bārāʾ. David, then, is asking God to do something only God can do. David is asking for God to do a Genesis 1 work in his heart. This is new creation language.

David goes on to ask God to “renew a right spirit within me.” Synonyms for the Hebrew word translated “right” (Heb. kûn) are firm, or steadfast. This word marches right in step with the concept of ḥeseḏ. David is asking that God help him be unwavering in his faithfulness just as God is completely trustworthy. David is asking for the restoration of the divine resemblance. David wishes to be as faithful to Yahweh as Yahweh is to him.

David goes on to say, “Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.” Here, David recognizes that covenant infidelity means being removed from the divine presence. David knows the story of Adam and Eve. He knows that in his sin he has written his own moral code and therefore rebelled against the Lordship of Yahweh who is the One True God. David has become an idolater. Such behavior means losing out on the privilege of enjoying the life-giving divine presence that fosters the divine image in people. David doesn’t want what happened to Adam and Eve to happen to him.

Finally, David repeats the request for the restoration of a willing spirit. This phrase is parallel to the “right spirit” we saw previously. Again, David is asking for the divine likeness in the form of faithfulness to be restored. Psalm 51, then, is a reminder that holiness as the restoration of the image of God in humanity depends on Yahweh’s ḥeseḏ as well as recognition of wrong-doing and repentance. It also makes the direct connection between the image of God in humanity in the form of ḥeseḏ faithfulness.

Lamentation and Holiness

The vast majority of Psalms are laments, or requests for God’s help in life-threatening circumstances. Psalm 22 is a perfect example of this kind of psalm. In Psalm 22 David expresses his trust in Yahweh in light of his unbearable suffering. The degree of his suffering is evident in the strong language he uses to describe his crisis. For example, verses 1–2 say,

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.

And verses 6–7:

But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people. All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;

And verses 12–15:

Many bulls encompass me; strong bulls of Bashan surround me; they open wide their mouths at me, like a ravening and roaring lion. I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

Especially noteworthy are verses 16–18:

For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet— I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.

These verses accentuate the gravity of David’s situation. Things could not be any worse. He has been betrayed and mocked to the point of causing him to lose all strength and desire to live. David is completely undone. Yet, in the midst of David’s agony, he remains faithful as he declares in the same Psalm:

Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame (vv. 3–5)

And

Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help (vv. 9–11).

And finally,

But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog! Save me from the mouth of the lion! You have rescued me from the horns of the wild oxen! I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you: You who fear the Lord, praise him! All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him, and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel! For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.

From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever! All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations. All the prosperous of the earth eat and worship; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, even the one who could not keep himself alive. Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it (vv. 19–31).

So, what do we see here and what does it have to do with holiness? We see that interwoven into David’s dire circumstances are his declarations of trust and hope in Yahweh. Even though it seems as if Yahweh has abandoned him (v. 1), David knows that Yahweh is trustworthy and able to save him. It is not by accident that Jesus sites verse 1 of this same psalm while on the cross.[6] Jesus is citing Psalm 22 to identify himself with David as the messianic king. Just like David was entirely faithful in the midst of suffering, so will Jesus be faithful. This true, tested faithfulness to Yahweh is what holiness is all about. It reflects Yahweh’s very ḥeseḏ faithfulness. When God’s people are faithful to Yahweh as the One True God like Jesus and David are faithful, the image of God is restored.

What does this have to do with holiness? If holiness is wrapped up in faithfulness to the Lordship of Yahweh, then that faithfulness is ultimately tried in the face of persecution and suffering. The Psalmist is a model of perseverance and devotion to Yahweh in even in the most difficult of circumstances. These psalms speak to questions such as, will you remain faithful if it doesn’t make sense? Will you completely devote yourself to Yahweh even though it may seem as if he’s not working on your behalf? Will you be faithful even when they are surrounded by enemies, plagued with sickness, and confused (Ps 22)? Those who are holy are those who are faithful no matter what. When they are faithful no matter what, they reciprocate God’s ḥeseḏ. They embody his very image in the world which testifies to his majesty and dominion.

[1]         For more on reading the Psalms messianically, see Gordon Wenham, The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013), 81–101.

[2]         For an excellent case in support of the reign of Yahweh as the central theme of the book of Psalms see James L. Mays, The Lord Reigns.

[3]         Exodus 12.

[4]         Exodus 26.

[5]         Leviticus 23.

[6]         Matthew 27:46.


Matt Ayars

President of Wesley Biblical Seminary

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